A View of Flannery O’Connor’s Woods

(Based on a lecture presented at “Reason, Fiction and Faith: An International Flannery O’Connor Conference,” at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy, April 20-22, 2009)

American author Flannery O’Connor completed the short story “A View of the Woods” in September 1956, three years after the major electrical utility company in Georgia finished construction of a dam on the Oconee River, which winds it way south through Baldwin County, Georgia, and cuts a path just east of downtown Milledgeville. There are interesting similarities between the circumstances in O’Connor’s short story and the developments that were taking place in the Milledgeville area where O’Connor was living when she wrote it. To some degree, O’Connor’s story envisions the rapid commercial and residential development that would eventually threaten the landscape of Andalusia, the family farm operated as a dairy in the 1950s by O’Connor’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor.

Flannery O’Connor moved back to Milledgeville in 1951 from Connecticut, where she had been living with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald since September 1949. Andalusia is located directly on the north-south highway passing through Milledgeville, which was officially designated U.S. Highway 441 in December 1948. The dam on the nearby Oconee River created Lake Sinclair, covering over fifty square miles with approximately six hundred miles of shoreline in three different counties. Within a short time, residential development began to claim sections of the lake’s shoreline as families started investing in weekend cabins at first, followed by increasingly lavish permanent homes. Greater interest in lake recreation brought the construction of marinas, boat ramps, fishing supply stores, camping facilities, and parks. Highway 441 was the major artery connecting the town of Milledgeville with the growing lake community and points farther north with larger highways leading to the state’s capital, Atlanta.

Lake Sinclair
Lake Sinclair

Government officials and a good portion of the electorate across the rural American countryside in the 1950s and 60s were ravenous to “catch up” with the big cities and attract jobs, build infrastructure, and provide new and improved services to their communities. Milledgeville was no exception, and the creation of Lake Sinclair paved the way. Textile manufacturing plants began to move in during the late 1940s when construction of the dam was underway; the first drive-in theater opened in 1950; the local telephone company was purchased by an outside conglomerate to expand service in 1957, the year that “A View of the Woods” was published. In that same year, Milledgeville experienced its first modern expansion of the city limits, moving the northern boundary just a mile from the driveway to Andalusia.

Beginning in the first paragraph of O’Connor’s story, the reader is presented with circumstances that mirror Milledgeville’s mid-twentieth-century progress. After explaining the family dynamics that will ultimately drive the story to its shocking conclusion, the narrator provides details of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Fortune’s windfall. The power company’s dam floods much of the countryside, providing Mr. Fortune with lakefront property. He knows there will soon be commercial development, creating even greater demand for his land.

Mr. Fortune’s idea of improvement includes paved highways filled with new-model automobiles and flanked by supermarkets, gas stations, motels, and a drive-in theater. His vision is inspired by the success of a nearby entrepreneur identified as Tilman, whose very name invokes an inherent conflict in the story between plowing the land and manning the till or the cash box. Tilman’s eclectic country store is complete with a barbeque pit and is reminiscent of many establishments that populated rural highways in the United States sixty years ago, and in some areas, still exist today. In her story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor included a similar roadside establishment called The Tower, where Red Sammy Butts sold his famous barbeque in a combination gas station and dance hall.

In her typical fashion, O’Connor offers marvelous and visually descriptive language to profile her characters and to punctuate their traits. Tilman’s evil nature is clearly identified with an appearance that invokes mythological satanic images. Mr. Fortune’s deal with Tilman to sell the lawn that provides his daughter’s family with a view of the woods is an obvious reference to Faust’s pact with the devil from the classic German legend, an observation made in early critical works on O’Connor by Frederick Asals and other scholars. Like a demon being promptly transported back to hell after shaking Mr. Fortune’s hand on the transaction, Tilman slouches back under the counter.

O’Connor presents Mr. Fortune as an ambitious landowner, driven by pride and domination, whose hunger for progress and personal acclaim blinds him to the pure beauty of the natural world. Mr. Fortune’s canvas of the future is painted with deception, revenge, and even violence. The story pairs reckless commercial progress with greed and avarice, contrasting the irresponsible destruction of natural resources to the stewardship of preserving the rural landscape. In describing the disintegration of a cow pasture into a red-clay pit by the heavy machinery in the beginning of the story, O’Connor uses the words “disembodied,” “nausea,” and “revulsion,” analogous of an assault by a deadly disease or virus. Later in the narrative, Mr. Fortune envisions the woods and trees being drenched in blood from the wounded, barely visible sun setting behind them, the mysterious sacramental image that O’Connor repeated many times in her fiction.

The critical literature provides an abundance of commentary on the personification of landscape and the role of nature in O’Connor’s fiction, from Carter Martin to Christine Flanagan. We recognize that Mr. Fortune’s lack of apprehension is manifested in his inability to appreciate the mysteries of creation that literally surround him. The woods in this story provide a backdrop for a small sanctuary, “the lawn,” where the Pitts children can play in safety, a respite from the otherwise contentious and even threatening environment that is ever present. In a letter to Elizabeth Hester dated December 28, 1956, O’Connor made the analogy conclusively when she compared the woods to Christ. They seem to walk on water and are surrounded by light. O’Connor associates the forest with purity.

Mr. Fortune’s obsession with obliterating the pastoral setting and beginning construction of his commercial empire is a rejection of purity and an abuse of innocence, an evil intention that is also reflected in his disintegrating relationship with his granddaughter, Mary Fortune. He considers the child his protégé, or even a prized possession; however, his ambition goes too far when he announces his plans to destroy the lawn. As the tension grows to hostility between Mr. Fortune and the child, she calls him the “Whore of Babylon,” and indeed he has become a prostitute by selling off the family property. After all, he is “pure Fortune.” When the child becomes an obstruction to his strategic plans, his fixation turns to rage and results in the horrible murder of his granddaughter.  The old man’s damnation is sealed.

To translate O’Connor’s theme in this short story as a summary condemnation on all commercial development would be a careless overstatement. Mr. Fortune’s daughter and son-in-law are by no means portrayed as altruistic or even humane. At the same time, the old man’s intentional conversion of land and trees to pavement and buildings, with total disregard to the desires of his family, characterizes him as irresponsible, if not evil. His hasty decisions and actions are illustrative of many mid-twentieth century landowners in America who sold property that had been in their families for several generations, placing their birthrights in the hands of developers who were delighted to build and pave over the woods and fields.

Many Americans, including elected officials, are starting to understand that unrestricted and mostly unregulated urban expansion has led to the destruction of the natural landscape that characterized rural America: the lawn where we play, where we graze our calves, and where we look at the woods from the porch, in Mary Fortune’s words. It is only in recent years that government agencies have started to encourage landowners to preserve their holdings, even providing tax incentives to keep land undeveloped.

Flannery O’Connor’s uncle, Dr. Bernard Cline, purchased the Andalusia property in the early 1930s and later acquired more land adjacent to the farm, which remained undeveloped for many years as a haven for wildlife. Such was not the case for so much of the land adjacent to Dr. Cline’s property. Perhaps it wasn’t O’Connor’s intention, but her story ends up being a prediction of the disappearance of the countryside that once surrounded Andalusia. Her forecast came true to some degree, with the eventual expansion of Highway 441 that carved away two acres of the east boundary of the family farm. The encroaching commercial development that followed was inevitable, including the Milledgeville Mall, which was constructed a mile south of Andalusia only eight years after O’Connor’s death. The next two decades would see the proliferation of fast-food and franchise restaurants, retailers, motels, convenience stores, car dealerships, nightclubs, and the king of capitalism, Walmart. The concentration of this rapid growth was located within a two-mile radius of Andalusia.

The Woods of Andalusia
The Woods of Andalusia

While opinions vary widely on what constitutes good stewardship of the land and protection of the environment, Andalusia’s caretakers have been able to take advantage of urban encroachment while still providing a view of the woods for the many visitors who have made their way to the property since it opened to the public in 2003. Although Milledgeville is in a very rural area of the state, Andalusia’s location on a U.S. highway brings travelers right to the driveway. Most American tourists reach their destinations in automobiles, and when they arrive, most of them expect accommodation and comfort. Abundant businesses within one mile of Andalusia’s entrance are more than capable of meeting the basic needs of travelers, including fuel, food, lodging, and entertainment. However, the farm structures of Andalusia are positioned a few hundred yards from the highway with a buffer of trees on all sides. This limited isolation allows visitors to make their way up the driveway to the main house, where their imagination can easily transport them back in time to 1964, as if Flannery O’Connor had just departed Andalusia for the last time.

Certainly, Andalusia is off the beaten path, and O’Connor’s readers who truly desire to experience the countryside that inspired some of her best fiction must leave the city and the interstate highways. The rewards for making that departure are certainly worth the effort. The current owner of Andalusia is Georgia College, the liberal arts institution in Milledgeville descended from O’Connor’s alma mater, Georgia State College for Women. I am hopeful and encouraged that the College is committed to preserving the view of the woods at this internationally significant landmark, a proper memorial to such a gifted writer.

Andalusia pond and main house
Andalusia pond and main house

Flannery O’Connor: A Born Writer

“He’s a born politician.” “She’s a born actress.” “He’s a born preacher.” “She’s a born lawyer.” These are examples of an expression I heard often when I was a young man describing someone who seems to possess an innate talent or skill for a profession or avocation. People who excel in this fashion often exhibited certain predispositions at an early age that their family and friends recall and associate with their success. I am not qualified to comment on the influences of DNA over environment in determining aptitude, but most of us can remember that one child who seemed almost obsessed with a certain activity, pursuit, or area of interest and eventually grew up to turn that fixation into a lifelong career.

  • The librarian who as a child organized into collections and sub-collections every single book, DVD, and CD in the house
  • The biology teacher who as a child captured and studied every living creature within a one-mile radius of home and could spout off a half dozen facts about almost any major species
  • The information technologist and software architect who as a child voraciously read encyclopedias and was fascinated by computers and programming (think young Bill Gates)

When I served as the director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation in Milledgeville, Georgia, I frequently gave presentations about O’Connor, which included a brief overview of her life that was cut short at the age of 39 from the effects of lupus. Along with many others who have studied her life and work, I perceived that Flannery O’Connor was indeed a born writer. I’m sure the same case could be made for any number of writers, but I know much more about the childhood of Flannery O’Connor than any other author.

Mary Flannery O’Connor (her full name) was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, and was the only child of Edward and Regina O’Connor.  She was raised by a Catholic family that sometimes viewed children much like small versions of adults, a perspective largely abandoned by the 19th century. Young Mary Flannery thrived in this atmosphere. She was a bold, precocious little girl who took herself quite seriously. She referred to her parents by their first names, not “Daddy” or “Momma.” When he was away from home, her father wrote her affectionate letters that he playfully addressed to “Lord Flannery,” and she would sign her correspondence to him with the same title, addressing them to “King of Siam.”

Young Mary Flannery was encouraged to read, and perhaps the most recognizable photograph from her childhood shows her in profile sitting with a large book in her lap, staring down at the page with a look of determined concentration. She would later use that same fierce gaze to observe the world around her and depict it through a grotesque and outrageous filter. As a young reader she collected a small library of familiar children’s titles and took the liberty of writing brief reviews on the flyleaf or title page of the books. Always assertively opinionated, the young critic praised some books as “First rate,” while others, such as Georgina Finds Herself, she dismissed as “the worst book I have read next to Pinnochio.” It is worth noting that, at the height of her career, Flannery O’Connor wrote more than a hundred book reviews for two Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia. Also, she carried to adulthood her sharp words in assessing the value of books, as is illustrated in her acidic comments about the works of other southern writers such as Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. To put it in today’s vernacular, she was savage.

Not unlike many bright children, Mary Flannery wrote stories from her own imagination. Some of them were about animals with human characteristics, which is a typical theme explored by aspiring young writers. However, she went a few steps further than most children. Not only did she write clever and often hilarious stories, she also illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family.  She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession. The volume of her published letters, The Habit of Being, includes correspondence to her agent, editors, publishers, and other professionals in the book industry where O’Connor demonstrated shrewd business acumen.

As a high school and undergraduate college student, Mary Flannery turned her artistic energy to cartoons, which she created through sketching and drawing but more elaborately through printing with linoleum blocks. Although she ended up in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under the direction of Paul Engle, she initially entered graduate school at Iowa thanks to a scholarship in journalism — she intended to pursue a career as a cartoonist. O’Connor’s biting satire and wicked humor were clearly developing even as a cartoonist, not just in the illustrations, but perhaps even more so in the captions. Some critics have argued that, as a mature fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor continued to exhibit the eye of a cartoonist in the creation of her most exaggerated characters. Little wonder that, when asked why her stories were so shocking, O’Connor explained “for the almost blind, you draw large and starling figures.”

In the private journals Flannery O’Connor kept as a college student, she undoubtedly believed that being an artist was so much more than a career choice.  It was a vocation. As she focused her attention toward writing, O’Connor yearned for her work to be used by God. She wanted to craft stories that would miraculously reveal God’s grace. As she matured into one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, she became less sentimental, but she never lost her appreciation for the mystery of art as it is interpreted by the Church, to which she remained devoted for the rest of her life. Perhaps she returned to the intensity of her younger years. She certainly became much more confident. When repeatedly asked why she decided to become a writer, without hesitation O’Connor always replied, “Because I’m good at it.”

Most of us get some level of education and eventually find a job that, with any luck, will get us out of our parents’ hair and their bank accounts. We will end up with about five different full-time jobs before we finally clock out for the last time, and our career paths will largely be determined by factors such as education, employment opportunities, salary, family obligations, and just plain old simple fate. But for a select few, a seed will be planted at a very early age that will germinate into a thriving métier that brings with it fulfillment and a deep sense of purpose. The term from my Southern Baptist heritage was “a calling.” The vocation of writing for Flannery O’Connor required serious devotion, discipline, sacrifice, and a form of genius that appears only a few times in each generation of artists. She was born with an incredible gift, which she carefully and skillfully nurtured, and her readers are the fortunate beneficiaries.

A New Steward for Andalusia

My wife and I were invited to a ceremony on August 9, 2017 making official the transfer of ownership and stewardship of Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor, to her alma mater, Georgia College, in Milledgeville. The great American novelist and short story writer lived on this farm with her mother, Regina, for the last thirteen years of her life. In her first-floor bedroom, O’Connor worked faithfully every morning for several hours, struggling on her manual typewriter to construct sentences and paragraphs that would not only entertain her readers but help them envision the action of grace on characters who were often violently resistant to it.

Andalusia transfer ceremony 8-9-17
Andalusia transfer ceremony 8-9-17

We were invited to this special occasion because I served for thirteen years as the founding director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that gifted the 544-acre site to the College. The current chair of the Foundation, Donna Barwick, explained to the people gathered that rainy August morning how she and her fellow board members arrived at this decision. “We would never, as a small organization, be able to raise the amount of money that it will take to maintain this place in the way it should be for Flannery’s legacy,” she said. “So we’re confident that this place will be treated properly.” Sadly, she is absolutely correct. Private entities that are responsible for the care and preservation of historic homes have an extremely difficult time raising the capital to do the job — in many cases, it is an insurmountable task. Andalusia is no exception. With a sizable two-story Plantation Plain house and a dozen outbuildings, this literary landmark will require millions of dollars to completely restore it and then a respectable annual budget to maintain it and keep it open to the public.

When I first began as the director of the Foundation, I had unrealistic expectations of how much money we could raise to restore the farm. I was sure that wealthy benefactors would be eager to drop thousands, if not millions, of dollars into our lap in honor of such a great writer. After all, she has friends in high places, at least financially. Celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, Tommy Lee Jones, Bono, Jerry Bruckheimer, and the Coen Brothers have all publicly paid verbal tribute to the author. We made overtures to all of these people, but they either never responded or indicated that they were focusing their charitable giving on other causes, like world hunger.  It’s hard to trump world hunger.

Toward the end of my tenure at Andalusia, I had a meeting with the incoming President of Georgia College, Dr. Steve Dorman, and we spent considerable time then and later discussing the ways in which our Foundation and the College could collaborate. We even toyed with the idea of the College taking over the operation of the site, although we never truly talked about any specific plans or what such an arrangement might look like. Now that the mantle has officially been passed, I am giving some thoughtful consideration to this next chapter for Andalusia. I feel a certain allegiance to Georgia College because it is the place where I earned my BA in English and my MA in History. Naturally, I will always have an emotional attachment to Andalusia, the home of the author whose work I so admire and the place that I devoted so many years to preserving.

I believe that Georgia College is the most logical beneficiary for this remarkable treasure. The College has the staff, resources, and state-wide support needed to protect and preserve Andalusia. I would imagine that Flannery O’Connor and her mother considered other colleges for the future writer to attend, but they decided on Georgia State College for Women, which is now Georgia College. As the state’s designated liberal arts college for the University System of Georgia, this institution is also home to the world’s preeminent Flannery O’Connor studies program, which was cultivated for many years by Dr. Sarah Gordon and is now directed by Dr. Marshal Bruce Gentry. The College publishes the Flannery O’Connor Review, edited by Dr. Gentry, which is the longest running journal devoted to a female author in the world. I am convinced that the administration understands the value of this donation, which was expressed by President Dorman at the signing ceremony: “We are grateful to the Andalusia Foundation for entrusting us with its future and look forward to continuing to share this piece of American history with the world.”

I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with a good friend of Flannery O’Connor, Marion Montgomery, who taught English at the University of Georgia for thirty years. He shared with me a conversation he had with Regina O’Connor not long after after her talented daughter had died. She may not have completely comprehended what Flannery was doing in her fiction, but Mrs. O’Connor understood the importance of the work and that Flannery’s professional papers needed to be preserved for scholars who were already exploring her genius and many more that would follow. Mrs. O’Connor confided to Professor Montgomery that she was struggling with the decision about where the papers should be reposited. Colleges and universities in various locations around the country were expressing deep interest in acquiring the archive, including Georgia College. Professor Montgomery asked her where she thought the material belonged. “At the College here in Milledgeville,” Mrs. O’Connor replied. Mr. Montgomery said, “I agree.” Since that time, hundreds and hundreds of scholars have spent countless hours poring over the O’Connor Collection at Georgia College, the place where a young woman’s talents as a cartoonist began to evolve into drawing startling figures with words instead of pictures. And now, some fifty years later, the care of the landscape that sparked a brilliant artist’s imagination is exactly with whom it belongs.

Pilgrims to Andalusia, the Home of Flannery O’Connor

During the thirteen years that I served as the director of Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, I had the privilege of meeting thousands of fans of this gifted writer. They came from every state in the country and from almost every continent around the globe. O’Connor is one of those rare authors whose work attracts an amazingly diverse audience. On any given day at Andalusia farm, we might have welcomed a busload of World War II generation grandparents in the morning followed in the afternoon by college students dressed all in black with spiked hair, black fingernail polish and lipstick, tattoos on all visible surfaces, and metal piercings decorating their faces who would walk in the door and say, “Flannery O’Connor is so kick-ass!” Her fan base covers almost every segment of society: straight, LGBTQ, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist (one of our largest donors was an atheist biology professor), Democrat, Republican, alt left and right, blue and white collar, and readers representing all income levels. Her books have been translated into at least twenty different foreign languages, indicating the cultural diversity of her following too.

What draws readers to O’Connor’s work, and why do they travel great distances to visit Andalusia, the place where she finished all of her published books? From my standpoint, there are only a few definitive answers but plenty of speculation. When we welcomed visitors to the farm, the first question we asked them was, “How did you find out about Andalusia?” Their answer would usually give us some clues of how to structure their tour to give them the best experience possible. If their response was, “We just saw the sign on the road and wondered what was back here,” then we would give them plenty of biographical information to introduce them to O’Connor’s life and the significance of her contributions to American literature. If on the other hand they told us that they had been teaching O’Connor’s work for 25 years and had always wanted to see the place that inspired her fiction, we would go in a different direction, encouraging them to ask questions that would satisfy their curiosity about O’Connor’s environs.

Andalusia, Home of Flannery O'Connor
Andalusia, Home of Flannery O’Connor

Anyone who has read O’Connor’s fiction even once immediately recognizes that her characters are particularly odd and not altogether admirable, which is probably the most polarizing point for her readers. Consequently, there are few lukewarm reactions to O’Connor’s stories; people either hate them or absolutely adore them. The haters walk away puzzled at why the lovers become nearly obsessed. Many of the die-hard fans who visited Andalusia had a mission to locate every place on the property that supposedly appears in the stories: the hayloft where Hulga lost her wooden leg; the milking parlor where Asbury drank the unpasteurized milk; the equipment shed with its tractor that ran over Mr. Guizac; and the white water tower in “A Circle in the Fire.” Other admirers weren’t as fascinated with such direct physical connections but were nevertheless impressed with how the farm clearly served as an inspiration for the fiction. O’Connor is revered by so many writers, some of whom made the pilgrimage to Andalusia while I was there: Allan Gurganus, Padgett Powell, and Salman Rushdie were among them.

Who else visited Andalusia and why? Here is where the story becomes more intriguing and just a tad O’Connoresque. A few examples may shed some light on how wide the spectrum was and render a snapshot of the author’s devotees. The true pilgrims were the visitors who regarded O’Connor and her home with a certain sense of reverence, like the woman who stepped up to the front porch and asked me if she should remove her shoes before entering the house, as if she were about to tread on holy ground. I assured her that I always kept my shoes on in and outside the house. Those who were specifically drawn to O’Connor’s use of grace bestowed, if not slammed, on her characters truly considered Andalusia to be a place of religious significance.  This was especially the perspective of practicing Catholics and most notably clergy, like the two priests who requested to hold a prayer vigil in the guest bedroom on the second floor where they would be less likely disturbed by, or be disturbing to, other visitors. They were up there for an hour. I was impressed with their stamina — the room was hotter than three hells in the summer, which was the time they elected to visit, in full black vestments.

A common observation shared by so many Andalusia visitors was a sense of the author’s spirit being present in the main house and on the property. For some this was merely a recognition that the authenticity of the place — buildings, furniture, and furnishings original to O’Connor’s time at the farm — helped them somehow feel closer to its famous occupant. Of course, we also had our fair share of ghost hunters and paranormal investigators who, for reasons that defy understanding, believe that the departed with celebrity status are more easily detected than your run-of-the-mill homeowner. I have never understood why ghost hunters don’t spend more time at hospitals, the very place where so many people pass on to the “next plane of existence.” I could usually tell if a visitor had high hopes for a Poltergeist encounter by the familiar question, “So, did she die in the house?” She did not. She died in the hospital.

Some of our guests went the extra mile to make their visit to Andalusia a truly memorable experience. A couple of folk singers recorded an original song on the front porch. Artists painted landscapes and farm buildings. Writers drafted stories while sitting in the iris gardens. Photographers snapped shots everywhere their eyes pulled them. One young woman was so taken by the beauty of the place while she was attending the college in town, O’Connor’s undergraduate alma mater, that she decided to have her wedding on the front lawn under the enormous oak trees, complete with peacock feathers in her hair. (O’Connor raised many different breeds of domestic birds, but peacocks are the species so identified with her life at Andalusia.)

O’Connor fans have found inventive ways to demonstrate their devotion to the author, from naming their daughters “Flannery” to having elaborate tattoos of peacock feathers permanently decorating their bodies. It was a pleasure to meet them all and to hear them share their admiration for this comic genius. Some made great sacrifices to pay homage to O’Connor at Andalusia, like the four scholars from Japan who spent most of a Saturday at the farm. When I asked what brought them to the states, the only one who could speak any English at all looked at me with a surprised expression and then smiled warmly and said, “Flannery O’Connor.  This place.” I was moved.

Flannery O'Connor's bed
Flannery O’Connor’s bed

The impact that O’Connor’s work had on some visitors’ lives was immediately apparent when they walked in the front door of the main house. Their countenance, their excitement, and their strong emotions spoke volumes. Several claimed that O’Connor had drawn them to the Catholic Church. Others credited O’Connor for launching their vocations as writers, artists, teachers, or ministers. It is rather ironic that a writer who has brought great joy to so many readers also endured great suffering for the last third of her 39 years as lupus slowly took away her life. This is an inescapable part of her story that no sensitive visitor to Andalusia would ever miss. I watched big, burly men apologize to me as they wept standing at the doorway of O’Connor’s first-floor bedroom where she slept and worked. No need to be sorry — I cried too, more than once.

A Writer By Any Other Name

One of the most gifted short story writers of the 20th century has a name that is rather unusual, although as a tribute to her talent, it is not as uncommon as it was during her lifetime.  There is a growing population of women, most under the age of thirty I would imagine, with the first name Flannery.  Those who are familiar with the life of the famous Georgia writer know that “Flannery” was a family surname and her middle name.  Her full name was Mary Flannery O’Connor.  However, when she went away to graduate school and eventually enrolled in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, she decided to drop her first name and began signing all her work simply as “Flannery.”   Further, she requested that friends, relatives, and even her own mother refrain from calling her Mary Flannery, the double-name style that was so typical of women in the early to mid-20th century in the American South.  From that point on, she would be Flannery O’Connor.

It is impossible to know how much thought or even strategy went into Flannery O’Connor’s decision to abandon her first name.  Considering that she was raised a devout Roman Catholic and was a dutiful daughter of the Church, it would not have been a choice made lightly or carelessly.  Indeed, someone so committed to the faith would need a very good reason to drop the name of the mother of Christ, especially considering that she was adopting a much more masculine forename or Christian name — the irony is obvious.  Her mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, resisted for a while but finally gave in to her daughter’s demands.  Years later, O’Connor claimed that she made the name change primarily for the sake of her career as a writer.  She explained to friends that no one would want to read anything written by someone named Mary O’Connor, which to her sounded like the name of an Irish wash woman.

On second thought, readers of O’Connor know that she was incredibly deliberate in her craft as a writer.  By the time O’Connor hands us a story, there is not a single word or mark of punctuation left on the page that doesn’t need to be there.  Those steel blue eyes served as windows into a brilliant mind with a razor-sharp wit.  Flannery O’Connor had wanted to be a writer from a very early age.  As a child, she wrote stories, illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family.  She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession.

I am convinced that when O’Connor began writing in Iowa in the mid-1940s, she also started to envision herself as a successful author.  Knowing that she would soon be sending manuscripts off to prospective agents and publishers, she no doubt understood her disadvantage of being a female who wanted to be taken seriously in a male-dominated profession.  To avoid having her manuscripts ignored or trashed immediately, she needed for editors to think they were reading the work of a man, and a name like Flannery gave her that edge.  Certainly the content of her fiction would not have given her gender away!  The strategy worked.  Letters she received from editors in response to her early submissions were addressed “Dear Mr. O’Connor.”  One early editor, upon learning O’Connor’s identity, still doubted that the stories were written by a woman at all.

Beyond the androgyny factor, a name like Flannery O’Connor gave the writer another distinct advantage, one that is often fabricated now by entertainers from a multitude of genres.  Having an unusual name goes a long way toward establishing memorable identity.  After all, how many writers do you know named Twain?  Poe?  Steinbeck?  Faulkner?  Of course, those are last names, and isn’t it amazing how often readers don’t refer to O’Connor by her more common last name, but by her iconic first name?  Fast forward to the age of pop culture.  It isn’t difficult to remember names like Cher, Sting, Madonna, Eminem, T-Pain, or Beyonce.  Who needs a last name?  Atypical works, and it works well.

Flannery O’Connor died at the young age of 39 from complications of lupus, the disease that had taken her father’s life when she was only 15.  Her mother outlived her by about 30 years.  I don’t know if O’Connor chose the wording for her tombstone or not.  Perhaps Regina O’Connor had the last word with her only child this time.  Maybe the inscription was dictated by the custom of the Church, the community, or family tradition. Whatever the case may be, O’Connor is laid to rest with her full name restored as a memorial to a literary genius.  Those of us who admire her work will always respect her wishes and remember her as Flannery O’Connor.  A writer by any other name is, well, someone else entirely.

Flannery O'Connor's grave
Flannery O’Connor’s grave

A Passing Literary Glance

The Georgia Writers’ Association held its 1955 annual meeting in Atlanta in early December.  On this occasion the Association honored Lillian Smith (social justice advocate and author of the controversial works Strange Fruit, Killers of the Dream, and The Journey) as the winner of the Georgia Writers’ Award for the best book of nonfiction with the most literary value written by a Georgian in 1954.  She felt the award was overdue but was proud at any rate that the Association exhibited the courage to recognize her importance as an artist.  Smith was terribly amused by the annual meeting – a sentiment I can almost imagine would have been shared by another Georgia writer named Flannery O’Connor who was also in attendance.

Lillian Smith
Lillian Smith

Lillian Smith was not invited to speak at the award ceremony; however, after meeting her and talking with her, the organizers decided to ask her to give an impromptu speech the next day, which she did.  Afterwards, an elderly woman in the audience came up to compliment the writer on how sweet and well-bred she was, exclaiming that Lillian Smith must have had the best intentions in the world, regardless of what she may have written in her books.  On the previous day, Flannery O’Connor delivered a luncheon address to this convention titled “Some Problems of the Southern Writer.”  Lillian Smith was at the luncheon, and this is what she had to say about O’Connor’s presentation:

Flannery’s talk was one of the funniest things I ever listened to.  Do you know – I don’t believe she had the vaguest notion how she shocked the crowd.  She told em off; told Georgia off; told the South off; told would-be writers off. . . . The stuffed shirts and the would-be writers (the place was full of them) began listening smilingly because they had heard she was “literary” and “talented” and nothing she wrote threatened anybody, certainly not on the conscious levels of their life.  But after about two paragraphs they realized that a nice little snake was sinking her fangs deep into their complacency and they began to look at each other and shake their coiffured heads and whisper, “Well . . . .what do you know . . .”
(all quotations from How Am I To Be Heard: Letters of Lillian Smith, edited by Margaret Rose Gladney; The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1993)

Smith mentioned O’Connor’s presentation in a letter to her editor at Viking Press, Denver Lindley, who also served as an editor for Flannery O’Connor.  There was a tone of bitterness, if not irritation, when Smith wrote that “these young writers can now say things out loud without any realization, actually, of how one or two of us down in the South opened the way for them.”

As far as I know, this was the only time that Lillian Smith and Flannery O’Connor were in the same room together, although they lived only 150 miles apart.  O’Connor confided to her friend Cecil Dawkins that, although she considered Lillian Smith to be a nice person, O’Connor was not impressed with Smith’s writing.  In a letter dated December 2, 1955, to Lon and Fanny Cheney, Flannery O’Connor stated that, at the Association meeting, Lillian Smith invited her for a visit to her home, but O’Connor declined.  In her essay titled “Flannery O’Connor and Lillian Smith: A Missed Opportunity,” published in the 2007 issue of the Flannery O’Connor Review, Virginia Wray observes that O’Connor’s brief remarks about her fellow Georgia writer in this letter carry with them a tone of sarcastic dismissal.  I know those who have studied O’Connor’s life are shocked by this revelation!  It’s no secret that O’Connor reserved some of her most acidic comments for other writers, especially those close to home.  O’Connor’s comments about Smith were rather tame by comparison.

Lillian Smith would go on to publish several more books, fiction and nonfiction, and numerous articles and essays on social justice and racial equality.  The last book published before her death came out in 1964, the year that Flannery O’Connor died; however, she continued to contribute to periodicals and newspapers until her own death on September 28, 1966.  One of the pieces Lillian Smith wrote for publication the year before she died was a book review for the Chicago Tribune.  The title of the review was “With a Wry Smile Hovering Over All.”  As fate would have it, Lillian Smith would get the proverbial last word in this evaluation of Flannery O’Connor’s second collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge.  It is worth noting that Smith and O’Connor had both developed an admiration for Teilhard de Chardin, although Smith claimed that, in the title story of the collection, O’Connor had twisted the Jesuit priest’s “profound and poetic vision into something small enough for her to smile at wryly.”  With regard to the other stories in the collection, Smith perceived that the author’s point of view lacked compassion and empathy, which should make us all wonder if she read O’Connor’s first collection of short stories.  Still, Lillian Smith considered O’Connor to be a highly gifted writer and described the title story as a masterpiece, where every line counts, every word.  No fan of O’Connor’s work could disagree with that assessment.

Opportunity of a Lifetime

As I have indicated before, I began my career as a librarian in a medium-sized public library in a small county of around 42,000 people.  As is typical in small communities, there were plenty of personal interconnections.  When I graduated with an MA in History in 1985 from a state college in this same county, I started work shelving and cataloging books in the public library.  With the encouragement, patience, and generous assistance from the library director, I and another worker in the library commuted to Emory University twice a week for two years to complete our Masters degrees in Librarianship (MLn).  I served as a reference librarian for most of my fifteen years there, but when the director left during my twelfth year, I was offered the position.  I served as the library’s director for three years.

One morning, during the spring of my last year, the husband of our children’s librarian walked into my office to say he had a proposition for me.  His wife was serving in this position at the library before I began there.  Her husband was a local attorney.  I knew them both very well — we attended social events and my first wife and I had even house-sat for them and had taken care of their two children for a weekend.  As it happened, he was the lawyer for the estate of a major American writer, who also was (and still is) one of my favorite authors: Flannery O’Connor.  She had lived a good portion of her life in this town where her family had deep roots going back to the early 19th century.  She spent the last thirteen years of her life at the family’s farm, called Andalusia, located on the north end of town.

foc_eberhart_photo
Flannery O’Connor
His clients were two sisters who were also first cousins of O’Connor.  Flannery O’Connor died in 1964, but her mother, Regina, lived until 1995.  As executors of Regina O’Connor’s estate, these two women were also in charge of Flannery O’Connor’s literary estate, which was primarily administered through a trust that had been established by Regina O’Connor’s will.  As co-executors and co-trustees, one of their responsibilities was to establish a non-profit foundation to maintain Andalusia as a proper memorial to O’Connor and also to perpetuate her legacy as a writer.  They needed someone to help establish this organization.  They also needed someone to work with a sizable archive of personal papers, correspondence, writings, photographs, memorabilia, and artifacts belonging to Flannery O’Connor.  The archive needed to be organized, cataloged, and properly stored for preservation purposes.  The co-executors asked the lawyer to find someone who might be interested and capable of doing both of these tasks.  He came to my office in the library that spring day, explained the proposition from the estate, and asked me if I would consider taking the job as an independent consultant working for the co-executors.  I accepted, which changed almost everything for me.

I will no doubt dedicate several future posts recounting my experiences as a consultant and then later the director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation that I assisted in establishing.  I was there for thirteen years — as long as Flannery O’Connor lived there.  That was long enough, or arguably, a bit too long.  While I can look back and think about plenty of mistakes I made and how I should have made different decisions, I don’t have any real regrets.  With a BA in English, an MA in History, and an MLn, I don’t think I could have been any better suited for the job with regard to my education and training.  I had the help of some talented and dedicated mentors, board members, volunteers, colleagues, and for a few years, a trusted co-worker and friend.  What I can state with absolute certainty is that this path that departed from my expected trajectory led me to some of the richest experiences I have ever had and offered me opportunities that other people with my education and training will, sadly, never enjoy.  I am humbly grateful, and hope that Flannery O’Connor would be pleased with the work we accomplished at Andalusia.